The Indian author Pankaj Mishra is certainly not among the currently most popular writers in the capitalist «West». But he is being increasingly heard and read, as the European «West» is slowly, surely and seriously starting to come to terms with the «rest of the world» – late, but nevertheless. At a time when Europe and the USA once again see «the yellow peril» looming, Pankaj Mishra (born 1969) puts the world in its proper perspective by virtue of his Asian point of view. His book is not only a long overdue broadening of our Eurocentric scholarly knowledge, but also indispensable for understanding our world of today and tomorrow. It will definitely change our outlook.
Hardly anyone from a European cultural background knows about the naval battle of Tsushima in 1905. And yet, it was a decisive turning point, similar to the 9/11 attack on the New York Twin Towers in 2001: The whites, formerly conquerors of the entire world, were suddenly vulnerable.
«In the narrow waters of the Korea Strait, a small Japanese fleet defeated a significant part of the Russian fleet in 1905. At stake was who would have control over Korea and Manchuria: Russia or Japan. The German Emperor saw Tsushima as the most important naval battle since Trafalgar in 1805, and Theodore Roosevelt considered it the “greatest phenomenon the world has ever seen.” For the first time since the Middle Ages, a country from outside of Europe defeated a European power in a major war.»
Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) wrote, «so far and wide have the roots of Japanese victory spread that we cannot now visualize all the fruit it will put forth.» The news of the battle outcome spread around the world like wildfire. The Chinese revolutionary and statesman Sun Yat-sen celebrated the Japanese victory in London, and the founder-to-be of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal («Atatürk») celebrated in Damascus. India’s future first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was deeply impressed as a youth by the military achievement of the Japanese Admiral Tōgō, after whom even children in India were named.
From the Ruins of Empire
«The West has seen Asia through the narrow perspective of its own strategic and economic interests, leaving unexamined — and unimagined — the collective experiences and subjectivities of Asian peoples. It may be disorienting to inhabit this other perspective, and this book will doubtless invoke many names and events that are unfamiliar to its Western readers. But it does not seek to replace a Euro-centric or West-centric perspective with an equally problematic Asia-centric one. Rather, it seeks to open up multiple perspectives on the past and the present, convinced that the assumptions of Western power — increasingly untenable — are no longer a reliable vantage point and may even be dangerously misleading.» (Prologue)
Insightful and exciting is the panorama of facts, largely unknown to us, that Mishra unfolds and illustrates along the vitae of some of the leading cultural and political figures of the Arab and Asian world of the 19th century. With a light hand, the author explains many phenomena, causing us to see them in an entirely new light and helping us assess them more clearly, making us understand that many of the 20th century’s political, social and cultural problems date back to the 19th century.
Paris Peace Conference and the rise of communism
The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 played a central role after World War I for the further political development in the 20th century. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson thoroughly shattered the high expectations placed in him that he would stand up for the weaker states and represent the principle of national self-determination. Siding with the Allied powers to divide the world among themselves, he very soon revealed himself as a representative of the age-old motto equating might with right. From China to Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Russia, to the Arab and African countries, the intellectual elites turned away from the conservative «Western» powers and toward the new communist ideas. Lenin had recognized as early as 1916 that the United States would neither lobby to return Indochina to the Vietnamese, nor would it withdraw its troops from Panamá. By 1920, the Bolsheviks were already organizing the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, and shortly afterwards, the Comintern was supporting the establishment of communist parties all over the world. The «Communist International» took its course.
Note: The quotes are taken from Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire.
Other recommended reading by Mishra:
A Great Clamour. Encounters with China and Its Neighbours, Penguin, New Delhi, 2013
Age of Anger. A History of the Present, Penguin Random House, 2017